Minnesota’s long-standing reputation as a progressive state may very well be in jeopardy. A look at the statistics surrounding the quality of life for young African-American men point to a picture that is bleak and difficult to ignore. These young men represent fewer than 5 percent of our state population, but are more than 35 percent of our state prison population. They are more likely to have contacts with police and probation officers than college recruiters and job interviewers. They are also more likely to live in prison housing than on college campuses in our state. This has to change.
As a mother of two sons, I feel my stomach churn every time I think about the fate of young black men, especially those who are poor. I often wonder how it could be possible for a state like Minnesota, which excels in nearly every key indicator of quality of life at a national level, to have such a high percentage of young black men who live like paupers. The systemic issues that young black men face are hidden from view and buried beneath data and reports that suggest how well Minnesotans on the whole are doing.
In my work as a law professor and civil-rights attorney, on a daily basis I encounter young black men, who for all intents and purposes have been locked out of mainstream society. I often see them standing on street corners in downtown Minneapolis detachedly watching important people and fancy cars whizz by. In winter, I see them waiting in freezing cold weather at bus stops in St. Paul, sometimes without coats, boots, or warm clothing. I see them idly standing in front of corner stores in some of our poorest neighborhoods. I sometimes see them being pulled over and questioned by police officers. And too often, I see them in the back of squad cars. Sadly, I see this familiar story being played out day after day after day and I often wonder, “Does anybody else see what I’m seeing?”
Unseen, largely forgotten
My instincts tell me that we have been taught to not see young black men. Well, with one caveat. We do tend to see them on the crime pages of our local dailies or when watching the crime reporting segment of our local news. Is it possible that this dichotomy has impacted our ability to really see what’s happening? And has it suppressed our ability to care about this largely forgotten, yet also hyper-feared, segment of our population?
I wonder at what point it stopped mattering to our society that fewer than 50 percent of young black men graduate from high school in Minnesota. And yet studies show that a black man without a high-school diploma is six times more likely to spend time in prison.
This has dire consequences for our future sustainability and will severely weaken our ability to compete regionally, nationally, and globally in the new economy as our state grows significantly more diverse.
In other words, we need all of the skilled and educated people in the work force that we can get to maintain our competitive edge. We are already facing a huge skills gap that has left more than 40,000 jobs vacant in Minnesota.
State’s destiny is linked with theirs
The truth of the matter is that our destiny as a state is inextricably linked to the destinies of young black men. What we fail to invest in building social and human capital on the front end will cost us an even heftier sum on the back end. The result will be increased reliance on social welfare programs, increased criminal justice spending, increased use of emergency medical care, and an ever-growing unemployment rate and skills gap for young black men who are being left behind, thrown away, and locked up.
Conventional wisdom shows that no matter how hard we try, we will never be able to incarcerate our way out of our problems. Instead, we are merely creating new ones. To counteract this trend, we must be willing to strategically invest in targeted job-creation initiatives and re-entry programs that will create a positive return on our investment and put young black men to work. We must also insist on policy changes that create reform of systems that are not working effectively and are causing more harm than good.
Nekima Levy-Pounds is a law professor at the University of St. Thomas and the director of the Community Justice Project, an award-winning civil rights legal clinic. She is also chairwoman and a founder of Brotherhood, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to breaking the cycles of poverty and incarceration facing young black men in the Twin Cities.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
Write your reaction to this piece in Comments below. Or consider submitting your own Community Voices commentary; for information, email Susan Albright.